“Great battles,” Winston Churchill remarked, “change the entire course of events, create new standards of values, new moods, in armies and in nations.” They do, and we Americans, individually and collectively alike, have not yet seen all the new moods and values created in nations by September 11, 2001. The longer-term ripples of that attack are still washing up—long after the first tidal waves of horror that swept over us in the days following airliners crashing into the symbols of American economic and military power.
We know that there are nearly 3,000 dead. A trillion dollars in capital has been lost; $100 billion in property damage was incurred; and millions of Americans were put out of work. The government itself was transformed—citizens worldwide were delayed and disrupted by increased security measures. Access to public facilities is now restricted. Private nagging fear and doubt about future attacks remain. We will not grasp for years the full interplay of events set in motion by the sudden vaporization of thousands in the late summer of 2001. The orphans and children of orphans not yet born will not—cannot—forget September 11 because they are now part of it forever.
The victims in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the crashing airliners did not fall in pitched battle. They were not even armed. None were expecting their fate. Yet they were nonetheless combat casualties of self-described warriors—indeed, the first terrible fatalities of what may prove to be a long war. And because battle by its very nature radically changes history in ways that even other seminal events—elections, revolutions, inventions, assassinations, and plagues—cannot, it will require decades before historians can chart all the aftershocks of September 11.
Churchill’s “great battles” often dispel the easy assumptions of peacetime; democracies, once attacked, are aroused from their somnolence to deadly and unpredictable fury. Before the carnage at Shiloh, Ulysses S. Grant forecast that the Civil War would be ended by “one great battle.” Afterward—with more casualties on April 6–8, 1862, than in all of America’s wars up to that time—generals realized that, in a fight with the new rifled muskets and canister shot, a great number of young men on both sides would have to die before the South would accept Union primacy.
Just as Grant and his generals woke up on April 8 to a new world, so did Americans on September 12, 2001, one in which the old idea of easy retaliation using cruise missiles or saber-rattling press conferences seems to have vanished. With the end of that mirage, the two-decade fear of losing a single life to protect freedom and innocent civilians also disappeared. Past ideas of restraint, once thought to be mature and sober, were now in an instant revealed to be reckless in their naiveté and derelict because of their disastrous consequences. In the years to come we may well see far more nightmarish things in our military arsenal than bunker-busters and daisy-cutters. Americans once feared to retaliate against random bombings; terrorists now wonder when we will stop—as the logic of September 11 methodically advances to its ultimate conclusion. Aroused democracies reply murderously to enemy assaults in a manner absolutely inconceivable to their naive attackers.
The United States was roused from its siesta on September 11 to learn in dismay that millions abroad were pleased over its losses. Many of its supposed friends among “moderate” Arab regimes were silent. Some, in fact, either inadvertently or deliberately, may have been involved in aiding and abetting the terrorists. Post–September 11 polls revealed that as many as 70 percent of those surveyed in most Arab countries disliked the United States. The bombing exposed a previously ignored but vast fault line between the Western and Islamic—and particularly Middle Eastern—worlds, all the more dramatic given near-instant satellite transmission of celebrating throngs in the streets of the West Bank, Pakistan, and Egypt. Terrorism on a grand scale strips away the pretensions of peace. It shows things the way they really have been among the masses rather than how events and ideologies were supposed to be presented by elites in government, universities, and the media.
Millions of Americans had forgotten that the easy use of the Internet, participation in the World Cup, or showy foreign jets at major Western airports had little to do with the nature of civil society abroad. For all the veneer of Westernism in the Islamic world—cell phones, television sets, luxury hotels, and fast-food franchises—few, if any, legitimate democracies exist in the Arab Middle East. Whether theocrats in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan, dictators in Libya, Syria, or Iraq, or milder autocrats in Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco, not one of those governments is subject to audit, recall, or removal by its populace. Such an absence of consensual politics permeates all such unfree societies, which are likely to lack religious tolerance, free expression, truly secular institutions, sexual equity, or an unbridled media.
The sudden sobriety ushered in on September 11 also reminded us of the vast differences between freedom and tyranny in a supposedly uniform global culture at “the end of history.” After the honking in the streets celebrating the American dead in some Muslim countries, few Americans perhaps saw Arafat as a responsible force for peace, the tribal yet ultramodern sheiks of Saudi Arabia as temperate friends—or even many of the NATO allies that voiced anger at America in the months after as true comrades in arms.
Neither diplomats nor strategists could immediately grasp that the world had suddenly cracked apart and would not be put back together with quite the same pieces. Thus the September 11 tragedy and its aftermath in Afghanistan and Iraq led to fundamental rethinking about NATO, the role of the United Nations, and American relationships with continental European countries. Europeans loudly pronounced a new anti-Americanism and talked of a separate “German way”; Americans silently seethed and were resigned to giving them their wish. After September 11, Europeans vented against the American protectorate even as average citizens in Des Moines and Tulare quietly shrugged and asked why the United States at great cost is defending a continent that has a larger population and a greater economy than its own.
Culture, like politics, is not immune to these billowing waves of combat. And we can look to the past to see that cultural repercussions usually follow from battles. The catalysts for modernism were Verdun, the Somme, and the other general carnage of the First World War trenches. Out of those infernos spread the belief that the old foundations of staid manners, traditional genres of art and literature, unquestioning patriotism—dulce et decorum est pro patria mori—and national politics had somehow led to Europe’s millions being gassed and blown apart for years in the mud of the French countryside without either victory or defeat.
Perhaps the present brand of postmodernism was born primarily in France as well. After the humiliating drive of the Panzers through the Ardennes in May 1940, the collapse of Europe’s largest army in six weeks, and the rescue by the Americans and British in August 1944, theories were easier to accept than facts. For a few elite but stunned postwar Frenchmen, fiction was more palatable than reality, text and discourse a refuge from a truth as unacceptable as it was bothersome.
The crater in New York—at the very epicenter of American arts and letters—will perhaps have a similarly profound though more likely opposite effect as we reply to a temporary loss with a more confident pursuit of victory rather than embarrassing denial. Without the World Trade Center on the New York skyline, it will be discomforting to suggest that events are mere historical fictions or constructions of power. Who now will insist that papier-mâché and urine jars best capture the human condition? Not that such art and literature, born often out of sarcasm and nihilism, will evaporate. Such sensationalism will not—at least for a time and among a few. But most people, desperate for transcendence and something real—and perhaps even exquisite—amid the recovery from catastrophe, will gradually be less interested in the clever but empty games of relativists who spawn such faux art a few blocks away from the detritus of the greatest foreign attack on American shores in our nation’s history.
Carefully arranging some concrete and steel together, putting it on display in a gallery, and then calling such impressionism “art” will not be as popular as before. Millions, after all, have seen and then judged the jumbled mess on a far grander scale—mixed with flesh and bone no less—to be not sculpture but a catastrophe and an abomination.
Where terrorism and killing take place is often as important as how many fight and die and who wins. Had the Al Qaeda terrorists chosen to crash their hijacked jets into the only two existing “skyscrapers” in Fresno, California, there may well have been 3,000 Americans dead while at work in their offices, but it is not so likely that the nation itself would have been so radically transformed. The reason is not just that the World Trade Center was a national and international icon and Fresno’s Security Bank Building is not. Rather—terribile dictu—there were not Fresnans in New York’s twin buildings but instead far more influential men and women who write our books, edit our newspapers, bring us the evening news, run our companies, and monitor our financial health. These so-called movers and shakers saw firsthand, and in some cases were in, what would become an inferno of 20 acres in the very midst of the most powerful city in the history of civilization.
The creed of contemporary multiculturalism sought to establish that all societies were roughly equal and that the “other” was but a crude Western fiction. But we were reminded that members of groups such as the Taliban, who did not vote, treated women as chattel, and whipped and stoned to death dissenters of their primordial world, were different folk from citizens of a democracy. A chief corollary to such cultural relativism was that Americans have wrongly embraced a belief in the innate humanity of the West largely out of ethnocentric ignorance. But surely the opposite has been proven true: After September 11, the more Americans have learned about the world of the madrassas, the six or seven varieties of Islamic female coverings, the Dickensian Pakistani street, and the murderous gangs in Somalia, Sudan, and Afghanistan, the more, not less, they are appalled by societies that are so anti-Western.
Blasts in Manhattan followed by televised pictures of women in burqas having their brains blown out in an Afghan soccer stadium have a tendency to make people rethink what they had been told—and just maybe to realize what a rare and beautiful gift is the Western heritage of democracy and freedom. So it was also after Thermopylae and the invasion of Poland in 1939, and so it is after September 11—a date that has blown apart history as we have known it over the last few decades.
The Classical View of War
After the retaliatory strikes of October 7, 2001, some among the influential talked of moral equivalency—the conventional wisdom that American precision targeting of an enemy in time of war carried the same ethical burden as the terrorists’ deliberate mass murdering of civilians at peace. But billions worldwide knew that the selective wreckage of Al Qaeda safe houses in Kabul was not comparable to the smoldering crater that was once the World Trade Center. Why else were terrorists and the Taliban hiding in mosques and infirmaries to avoid American bombs while their own manuals instructed killers to commit mass murder in Jewish hospitals and temples? So the reality that average folk viewed on their televisions made them question the bottled piety of the past decades that they heard from a powerful and influential few. And in that moral calculus, September 11 shocked an affluent and at times self-satisfied American citizenry into confessing that it was no longer either too wealthy, too refined, or too sensitive to kill killers.
Knowledge of the past would have reminded us that battle does such things to a people. Socrates cannot be understood without appreciating that his thought came of age during the murderous three decades of the Peloponnesian War. Battles can create prominent men and can destroy them as well. The same is true of ideas. The pacifism of the post-Vietnam generation shamed Americans into thinking that all conflicts were bad. Relativism sometimes convinced them that they were not that much different from their enemies. Conflict resolution advised that there was rarely such a thing as a moral armed struggle of good against evil—to be scoffed at as “Manichaean”—and that strife is a result of misunderstandings and so can be resolved through give-and-take and rational discourse. But September 11 has returned America once more to the classical view of war as a tragic, but sometimes necessary, option for humans when unchallenged evil threatens civilization.
In 1986 a panel of the United Nations declared that war was an aberration and not in any way natural or innate to humans. Yet the Greek philosopher Heraclitus 25 centuries earlier had dubbed it “the father, the king of us all.” After the fall of the Twin Towers, Americans were more likely to believe a dead Greek than the most sophisticated lawyers and social scientists of the modern Western world.
In a single morning Americans also rediscovered the Hellenic idea that it is not wars per se that are always terrible but the people—Hitler, Tojo, Stalin, Saddam Hussein, and bin Laden—and their repugnant ideas who start them. In this present conflict, the -isms and -ologies of radical Islamic fundamentalism that have infected millions can be shown to be bankrupt only by their complete repudiation, which tragically must come out of military defeat, subsequent humiliation, and real personal costs for all who embrace them. Only that way can both adherents and innocents alike learn the wages of allowing their country to be hijacked by agents of intolerance.
Even we in the supposedly enlightened West may also relearn—from fighting rich and educated terrorists—that conflicts can often arise not out of real but rather out of perceived grievances—or, as the Greeks taught us, out of old-fashioned but now passé ideas such as hatred, envy, fear, and self-interest. The agitators for secession were not the millions of poor and non-slaveholding Southern whites who lived hand to mouth, but the few plantation owners whose antebellum cotton sales had made them among the wealthiest people in the history of civilization. Japan had as many people and as little land in 1941 as it does now but a very different perception then of its own grievances, national rights, and imperial destiny. People and their leaders may go to war not because their bellies ache with hunger but because they believe that they may otherwise lose—or not augment—the sizable fortune, influence, or real power they hold.
The terrorists of Al Qaeda, like the Japanese militarists, attacked America not simply out of being poor, exploited, abused, or maladjusted but perhaps as much out of loathing, trepidation, and resentment of the West. That fact in and of itself seemed somewhat a refutation of the entire twentieth-century confidence in the assertions of social science: that man’s nature is not absolute, unchanging, and timeless but simply a construct of his contemporary environment and (often pathological) upbringing. After September 11, we were reminded that our own prosperous and peaceful era, not history’s long
centuries, was the true aberration in its denial of an unchanging human character driven by timeless passions and appetites.
Other than the distant bombing and hundred-hour ground war in the Gulf during a few days in 1991, and isolated actions in Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, we have been mostly at peace from real organized killing for 30 years and so have forgotten in a brief generation that, since the birth of civilization, entire worlds have changed, both abruptly and insidiously, in minutes once thousands fall to the fire and explosions unleashed by others. Americans are startled at pronouncements that “nothing is the same after September 11,” dumbfounded that their own comfortable and relatively predictable worlds have now changed—and will continue to be different for years to come. But if history demonstrates that Lexington and Concord, Fort Sumter, and Pearl Harbor all turned America into a different nation in a matter of minutes, why should we now be any less immune from the far greater bloodletting on September 11? If our understanding of Greek tragedy, art, philosophy, politics, and war was changed by a relatively obscure battle at Delium, why would not the destruction of the World Trade Center and the bombing of the Pentagon not similarly alter American culture?
Anonymous millions have had their lives altered in ways we cannot grasp for centuries, as a single battle—with all its youth, confined space, and dreadful killing—insidiously warps the memory of the friends and families of the fallen, twists the thoughts and aspirations of the veterans of the ordeal, and abruptly ends the accomplishments of the dead. In that sense the ripples of battle are also immune from and care little for what people write and read, in or outside the dominant West. They simply wash up on us all as we speak and in ways that cannot fully be known until centuries after we are gone.